Diver Magazine (UK) Feb ’15
Photos by Jim Catlin http://www.jimcatlinphotography.com
Diver Magazine (UK) Feb ’15
Photos by Jim Catlin http://www.jimcatlinphotography.com
Guest blog for http://www.idivecayman.com
If I was given a dollar every time a diver asked me the question, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen underwater?” I’d probably still be broke, but I’d have lots more stories to tell!
It’s a fair question though, I’ve done a lot of dives and who knows what I might have seen down there; mermaids, treasure chests, guys dressed up as unicorns…… the possibilities are endless. For me, it’s a tough question to answer because I’ve seen tons of cool stuff underwater, from sunken ships to caves to sharks to trains to, believe it or not, a man dressed up as a unicorn. What was the best? I couldn’t judge, they’re all just different kinds of awesome.
Having said that, if you want to ramp up the chances of seeing something truly mind blowing, you have to try diving at night. The excitement of putting on the gear and getting into a moonlit ocean still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. In addition to the thrill of the activity itself, you never know what you might find, as all kinds of beasties come out to play at night.
Ten things I love about night diving in Grand Cayman are:
How does being inside a cosmic, underwater snow globe sound? The trick with this stuff is for everybody to turn their lights off (no, I’m not joking) and wave their arms around like crazy. The effect of the electrically-coloured pixie dust that darts around is bioluminescence; a kind of plankton that when disturbed, lights up like a firefly. Try it for a while then turn your light back on, hopefully there are still as many people in the group as when you turned it off!
2) Sleeping Turtles
What’s more cool than finding a turtle? Finding a sleeping turtle! Turtles work on the principle that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. So when it’s time to hit the hay, turtles take a big breath of air before swimming down to a ledge or rock to wedge their head under. Typically when you find one sleeping at night, the first thing you’ll see is their big turtle butt hanging out in the water. In order to make their breath last longer, turtles drop their heart rate down as low as one beat every nine minutes.
3) Basket Stars
By day, these guys wrap themselves up into a tight ball and attach themselves to coral. After sunset, they open up and spread out in the water column to feed. When fully open they can look like the skeleton of a big satellite dish, as their arms reach into the ocean. They eat by catching waterborne food such as algae or plankton then recoil their arms in order to bring the catch to their mouth.
I have a vivid imagination, but even so I am sure that spiny lobsters are in some way related to the face huggers from the Aliens movies. At night, it is far more common to see lobsters scampering around looking for food. This means you get to see the whole creature, you’ll be surprised as to how much bigger they look than when hiding under a rock in the day. A real treat which is more likely under the cover of darkness, is to find a slipper lobster. These guys look like they just crawled out of a 50’s B movie and can often be found wandering around in the shallows.
5) Brain coral
Before I started diving, I thought that hard coral was a kind of pretty rock, apparently they are classed as animals, who knew huh? Coral has mobility, but you won’t catch a piece going for a pleasant stroll across the reef. In fact you won’t see much movement out of brain coral at all, until night that is. At night, the coral catches food from the surrounding water by firing their tentacles with surprising speed. When they catch something like a blood worm, they pull the struggling victim in and suck the insides of the worm out leaving just its sizzling empty carcass, it’s an impressive sight indeed!
Depending on where you dive, you could find yourself being surrounded by a school of tarpon. Creatures of habit, it only takes a little local knowledge to find a dive site where these night time feeders hang out. Some shore dive sites attract tarpon, as they like to use nearby lights from the land to find their food. And what’s the big attraction? Well, they grow up to lengths of four feet, have a mouth that makes them look impossibly down in the dumps and have silvery, armour like skin that reflects the light. It’s a really cool feeling to be in the water surrounded by 15 or so big, shiny, depressed fish munching on whatever gets caught in the flash-light.
One of the reasons why things can look so different at night, apart from the lack of light of course, is that the marine life behaves differently. Many species that hide throughout the day, come out at night, often to hunt. Schoolmaster snappers have managed to catch on to the fact that divers at night have lights with them and that if they hang around just behind the diver then they can use the light to their advantage when hunting. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have been swimming along and noticed something like an angel fish, before I’d even had a chance to fully focus on it, a snapper has appeared from nowhere and gobbled it up. It always makes me a little paranoid as to what I shine my light on “Wow, cool, it’s a…… oops, oh dear.”
As far as I’m concerned, the absolute highlight of a night dive is the chance to find an octopus. If you ever needed proof that aliens exist and are living amongst us then come find an octopus at night and you’ll never have a doubt in your mind again. Octopus change colour right in front of your eyes. Often when you first find them, they are a kind of blue/green colour which is good for camouflage against the reef. When they realise they have been spotted they seemingly flick through an entire spectrum of colour in an attempt to communicate. I don’t speak octopus, but I guess they’re saying something along the lines of “get that damn light out of my eyes!” Our 8 legged buddies are curious creatures, so may well hang out for a while or even extend a tentacle in order to investigate a diver. If one does that and you stretch a finger out to have a kind of ET moment then believe me, if it makes contact with you, the feeling will make you jump out of your skin.
I love the little dudes! At night, like many other things, tiny shrimp and crabs venture out to see what they can find, banded coral shrimp are a great example. My little tip for finding these guys is to watch where you shine your light and look for small reflections. Shrimps’ eyes are like the reflectors in the road that help guide cars in the fog. If you see a little dot winking back at you, go check it out, you could be in for a nice surprise.
10) The Kittiwake
Even Caymans wrecks take on a new persona by night. Swimming through the Kittiwake in the dark can give a more eerie feel to it as you move from room to room with no ambient light breaking through. Exploring the corridors of this sunken vessel with just your flash-light to show you the way is one of the most exciting ways to dive this wreck. At night, the floors of this ex USS navy ship become covered in peppermint shrimp. If you have doubts about whether you will be comfortable diving at night then my suggestion is to avoid this dive until you have built a little confidence. It can be pretty spooky, especially when you turn a corner into a room only to come face to face with a huge grouper, they aren’t too pretty at the best of times!
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had has been at night, trust me, the stories are endless! But this is a dive blog, so all that rock n roll stuff is gonna get parked for now, those stories are best told over a beer anyway. If you’re coming to dive in Grand Cayman then you need to check out a night dive. Either talk to your dive operator for a boat dive or take a look on Idive for some options from the shore. You don’t need extra training but if you want to be taught about diving at night, most dive centres will offer a course in it. Any extra equipment that is required (lights) should be provided by the facility you get your tanks from.
Grand Cayman has some of the most convenient diving in the world, heading out at night is no exception. Whether you’re a seasoned night diver or trying it for the first time, you’re gonna love discovering its hidden treasures in the dark.
Dive safe and have fun out there!
Guest blog for Idive – www.idivecayman.com
I’ve had a startling revelation that I want to share with the dive community, just promise me one thing in return – remember you heard it here first!
OK, strap yourself in, here goes….. Grand Cayman has some phenomenal diving!
Did that send a shock wave of surprise around the world and blow you off your chair? Well, probably not. It’s no secret that the Cayman Islands have some awesome diving on offer. There have been libraries of words written and a gazillion photos proving this, so creating another account of this underwater paradise seems a tad redundant. Instead, I am going to try to paint a little picture of the island as it looks below sea level, metaphorically of course. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be entertained by watching me fumbling with watercolours and brushes to create a mess that not even my mum would want to put up on the fridge door!
But why would you be interested in such a blog? Well, start by thinking of the dive sites around Grand Cayman as being pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. With a bit of time on the island you can become familiar with the detail on some of the pieces , but the complete image remains a mystery. The more pieces you are able to become familiar with, the greater your vision of the wider picture becomes. Hopefully, this account will help you save some time by filling in the blanks.
So where does the island come from…. Sorry, was that a silly question? Let me explain! Imagine an ocean a mile deep (more or less). Now make a mountain with sharp cliffs that rise straight out of the ocean floor. The mountain climbs all the way up to the surface with just the very tip poking out to make dry land. All around the mountain is the deep blue Caribbean sea.
The tip at its highest point is only 60′ above sea level meaning Grand Cayman has very little altitude. Deep down where the krakens lurk, east of the island, the Cayman Trench cuts into the ocean floor reaching depths of over 25,000 feet (there aren’t any recorded dive sites down there by the way, but if you manage to check the place out please do let me know what it looks like!)
OK, good to know, but what does this mean for us divers? Well, firstly the very low altitude of the island means no rivers and very little run off. This lack of detritus being washed in to the ocean helps the island’s dive sites maintain fantastic visibility all year round. Next up, the plummet to the abyss that is right on our doorstep means that we are close to all kinds of oceanic beasties . Appearances from hammerheads, tuna, marlin and even the odd tiger shark have been made in the short time that I have been here.
Beyond all that, the drop itself is an awesome sight to behold. In some places, diving on the wall around Grand Cayman is like taking a running jump off a cliff so high that it’s impossible to see the floor below. Just as gravity is about to pull you to your demise, time somehow stops leaving you just hanging there to take it all in.
My passion is tech diving so having this drop so close to the shore makes this island about the best kind of playground I can imagine. Fortunately, the conditions are such that the wall and its scenery can be enjoyed by recreational divers just as easily.
Oops, there I go waffling on about how phenomenal it is here again, lets get back on track. So as I mentioned, we have these sharp cliffs that rise from the ocean floor towards the surface, but that’s not how they emerge from the water. The steep mountain walls stop around 40′-80′ short of the surface and upon the top, surrounding the island, sits a crown of coral reef.
Fixed boat moorings have been built into the reef at the top of the main wall, often only tens of feet away from the edge . To give you a point of reference, some of these deep wall dive sites are so close to the shore that a 5 minute surface swim is all it takes to get there. From such sites, divers can find swim-throughs, pinnacles, overhangs, ledges, grottos and all kinds of cool things living in the nooks and crannies.
But we’re still not up to the surface yet…
Swim towards land a little, just a short way from the big drop and you’ll notice that the coral crown nestles into a sandy bottom at around 50′-90′. This sand belt is like a shelf ranging in width from 40′-300′ and also orbits the island, dividing the coral reefs of the main wall from those of the mini wall.
How impressive does a sandy shelf sound? Well, not very I guess but actually there is a ton of cool stuff to find there. The little coral heads that pop up intermittently have marine life just exploding out of them making you feel like you are in an aquarium. Garden eels live in the sand and to me it looks like they are having a big party, all dancing to the same beat. Cool as they are, the garden eels attract spotted eagle rays who come in close enough to suck them right out of the sand. Southern stingrays patrol the flats searching for their next bite and dotted around all over, it’s easy to find conch laboriously dragging themselves through life.
So, we have deep blue, then the wall, then the sand flat and then what?
Another coral belt runs around the island which I briefly mentioned earlier. This stretch however is not as black and white as the other perimeters. The mini wall looks different depending on where you are on the island. In places it can be like a definite, visible step that drops from 35′(ish) down to the sand at around 60′ more or less. It is common to find fingers of coral that jut out of the mini wall clawing their way in to the sand channel, and coral heads that exist in between these fingers make for some really cool routes to swim through. In other parts of the island, the depth range of the mini wall is not anywhere near as noticeable without looking at your gauge. An example of this could be the shallow sites off seven mile beach which are typically more like sprawling fields of coral heads than a neat step.
The top of the mini wall brings us up to 20′-40′ and following this contour is another dot-to-dot outline made up of mooring buoys that mark the islands shallow dive sites. The final stretch between this and the waterline is either sand, hardpan or ironshore depending on where you are. These shallow spots are often dismissed by divers but are in fact goldmines for macro photographers who may find sailfin blennies, fingerprint cythomas, gaudy clown crabs and bristled fireworms to name a few. It’s not all small stuff either, flying gurnard, peacock flounders, tarpon and giant barracuda are amongst the bigger boys that can be found lurking in the shallows.
To get a better visual representation of this, why not check out the “idive maps” tab on the website, zoom in a little you’ll kinda see the 2 surrounding bands of dive sites from shallow to deep. Click on the thumb-tack and you’ll get your own virtual tour of the site, pretty cool huh?
So there you have it – from the ocean floor to the shoreline of Grand Cayman in just a few paragraphs! Of course there is an absolute bucket-load of (not so fine) detail that I have missed out and my crude descriptions far from cover every inch, but you get the idea. The best way to see the underwater world here is to get on a plane and come see for yourself. That said, I like to read up as much on a dive location as I can before I go there in order to get the most out of the experience. If that sounds like something you like to do too then I hope this account has helped a little.